Recently, I came across this quote in an article:
Overall, the vast majority of your life’s results comes…from small behaviors, repeated thousands of times over the decades.
I thought the quote encapsulated something I had been thinking about for a while, namely, the importance of our habits. Most important goals in life cannot be reached quickly or all at once. They require time and good habits, wherein we work steadily towards an end, accomplishing a little each day. We chop bit by bit at the metaphorical tree until it comes crashing down. Time by itself, without good habits, will accomplish nothing for us. You will not get your degree, or get married, or get the job you want, simply by waiting and letting time pass by. Unless you find a way to move forward, you will stay exactly where you are.
I’m not surprised that in the past few years, I’ve seen a surge of interest in the idea of productivity among Christians and non-Christians alike. We might loosely define productivity as optimizing your habits so we can move more efficiently towards where we want to go. If we will not get anywhere without good habits, it makes sense that we should focus our energy and efforts on improving those habits to be more productive.
I see talk of productivity all over the place. There are viral videos, youtube channels, websites, books, each telling me the latest life hack, or how to optimize my morning routine, or how to study more efficiently, and so on. Telling me how to streamline my habits to fell the massive trees in my life. On the one hand, I’m extremely grateful for these resources and how they’ve helped me to work more efficiently. On the other hand, I’ve noticed that I can often have an unbalanced perspective on productivity which can be dangerous.
What do I mean? As the pressures to be responsible mount in post-grad life, it’s been tempting for me to look toward productivity, not God, as my savior. It’s been easy for me to see productivity as truly practical and faith as idealistic and not really useful. After all, I see Christians who know God’s word, who have sincere faith, and who have godly character, yet are caught in cycles of unproductive habits. Despite their faith, they struggle mightily. Conversely, I see Christians and non-Christians with effective habits. They are the ones with organized lives and good reputations. They are the ones who seem happiest. And so, I think to myself: “Faith is good, but productivity, that is what really has power. That is what takes you to where you want to go. If I could just maximize my habits I could have a picture perfect life too.”
But this is deadly mindset. The danger for some is that they succeed in being productive. The temptation for them is to trust in themselves that, even in Christian things, what really makes them successful is their own ability to manage their lives. The danger for people like me who aren’t so good at being productive is that we are crushed by our failures. Productivity can be a cruel master. If you reach the end of your day with a crossed out to-do list, you feel accomplished and hopeful. But on the many days where you don’t, you feel crushed. You feel like a failure. Like everyone is passing you by. The massive tree stands before you, reminding you that you have so far left to go and today you didn’t even make a dent.
How can we find a balanced view of productivity? We cannot cast productivity and our habits aside and focus solely on theology. Productivity is the way we get things done. Nor can we focus solely on productivity. We need an understanding of God which informs and enables our productivity. An understanding that strengthens people like me to be more productive, but also not to trust in productivity to bring ultimate joy.
One Foot Forward
We often imagine productivity as something neutral and non-spiritual. You just do things. You wake up early so you have time before work to do personal projects. You get off of facebook and study. You plan out your schedule. In one sense, that’s true. You don’t have to be a Christian to do any of those things and there are tons of hyper-effective non-Christians. That’s part of what is so attractive about productivity. There’s no mystery. The steps to a better life and a better you are right in front of you. You just need to do them.
Yet, as anyone who struggles with productivity will attest, there are deep-rooted spiritual issues we must confront if we are to change our habits. At the forefront is fear. When we look at the long journey ahead, and the mountains we must climb and the valleys we must cross, it is easy to lose heart. We are further discouraged when we see how much further our peers are along the path, or when we contemplate how much time we have wasted and how many bad decisions we have made.
Why do we keep procrastinating? Why can’t I stop scrolling through social media and focus for a half-hour? Why does my heart react so violently when I try to do what I need to do? Taking one step forward – that is, changing an ingrained bad habit for even one day – may seem small and trivial, but it often takes all our resolve. Why? Because taking one step reminds us of the whole journey ahead and everything it will take. It’s much easier to procrastinate; to distract ourselves so we don’t have to face how far we have left to go and how much we have failed.
(Paul Maxwell wrote an article called “The Complicated Life of Lazy Boys” for Desiring God that I thought was so insightful. In it, he talks about the 5 cycles of unproductivity that we can become trapped in, and the spiritual reasons underlying them. If you have time, I highly recommend you taking a look at it, as well as the follow up article on rest.)
How does Gospel address the fear behind our bad habits? It tells us that because of Christ, the all-powerful God stands behind us. And though the journey ahead may seem impossible, our God is strong and he is able to do the impossible. And even though there seem to be so many dangers and snares along the way, our God is sovereign and will guide us through. Be strong and courageous, the Gospel tells us, do not be in fear or in dread because the Lord your God goes with you.
Those are massive truths, but, if I’m honest, they often feel small in the moment, crowded out by the shadows of the mountains looming ahead. For those with weak faith like me, my encouragement is this: just put one foot forward. It’s okay if you feel weak. It’s okay if you feel you don’t have enough strength to survive the journey. It’s okay because you don’t!
Let me refer back to beautiful quote from a previous post. It’s written in the context of marriage and singleness, but I think it fits well with this idea of taking one step forward:
If the thought of enduring your marriage or lack of marriage for the rest of your life is daunting, it is because God doesn’t hand out grace in a lifetime supply. He provides it one day at a time. If you feel like God has not given you the capacity to love your spouse for a lifetime, that’s because he hasn’t. But he has given you exactly what you need to be loving today. Furthermore, God has not given celibates the grace to bear a lifetime of solitude. But he will give you what you need to make it through this day.
…God will give us what we need, but he will not give it to us until we need it. He didn’t give the Israelites enough food to last through forty years in the wilderness; he gave them manna one day at a time. None of us has a lifelong stockpile of grace, but we can look forward to God’s faithfulness over a lifetime, offered to us one day at a time.
What does it mean to have courage? What does it mean to have steadfastness in faith? Courage is not always slaying the dragon. It is not always big and heroic. Steadfastness is not a constant spiritual high. Rather, we could say that courage and steadfastness come from learning to pray “give us this day our daily bread” in good times and bad, when our faith feels strong or when it sinks out of our sight. It is taking the manna that God gives and taking one step forward – changing that bad habit just once – and then by God’s grace, taking another step. And doing that over and over again for a lifetime.
We could amend our initial quote about productivity to look like this: overall, the vast majority of your life’s results comes…from small behaviors, each one enabled by God strength and sustained by God’s grace, repeated thousands of times over the decades. I think that’s a profound and beautiful picture of productivity in weakness.
One Solid Hope
Even as we seek to move forward one step at a time by God’s grace, there will be many days when we will not be productive. Many times when we will look back over our day, and see that we have accomplished nothing of real value, because we were lazy or because we were overwhelmed by worries. Times when all will see are the replays of our sin – our outbreaks of anger or our failures in purity or the callousness of our hearts towards God and others.
What do you do when you reach the end of the day and you realize it was utterly unproductive? What do you do when as you sit on your bed feeling overwhelmed and wondering where the strength will come from to face tomorrow? In times like those, rest in your one solid hope. Remember that your hope is not in your goals – the future career, or relationship, or ministry position you are working towards. None of those things can bring you ultimate and lasting joy. Your hope is not in your efforts to reach those goals. It is not in your productivity. You are not loved and accepted or worthwhile on the basis of what you have done or failed to do today. Your hope is in Jesus. The one who embraced the cross, despising the shame, so that we might know and love him, even as we are known and loved by him. He is the goal and we have all we need in him.
…for we walk by faith, not by sight. (2 Corinthians 5:7 ESV)